Higher ed hasn't gotten off the chopping block.
States cut their higher education budgets throughout the recession and its long aftermath. This year, most states will probably give their colleges and universities a modest boost in support.
But a handful of states may cut way back. That has led some observers to question an apparent imbalance between the frequently stated desire by governors to have better-educated workforces and their decision to cut funding for post-secondary schools.
"It's a generational issue," says Daniel Hurley, an associate vice president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "It's currently elected lawmakers that are cutting off the economic and career aspirations of the younger generation, period."
Much of the cutting is driven by lingering budget problems, but part of the motivation may be a desire to punish higher education systems. Last month, the University of North Carolina board of governors voted to eliminate three academic centers, including a poverty center at Chapel Hill whose director has been openly critical of GOP Gov. Pat McCrory.
"It's really popular in conservative circles to go after higher education," said Jon Erpenbach, a Democratic state senator in Wisconsin. "There are some of my colleagues who think it's just an incubator for liberals, with professors who don't work."
Scott Walker of Wisconsin is one of several governors to propose significant cuts to higher education funding in their budgets this year. Most are Republicans -- including the governors of Arizona, Illinois, Kansas and Louisiana -- but Democrat Dannel Malloy of Connecticut is calling for reductions for colleges and universities as well.
Some say they have no choice. "The governor sees great value in the universities and sees they're an investment for our state and also for our individuals," said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. "We had a situation where at the end of the day we had a $1.5 billion budget deficit and needed to tighten the belt across government."
Arizona cut its funding for Arizona's three universities by just under $100 million, lowering annual state support to $600 million -- down from over $1 billion before the recession. Other programs such as Medicaid and welfare also took a cut, while K-12 spending was kept essentially flat.
Some of the governors seeking substantial cuts point out that colleges and universities are still getting a lot of money from the state -- and have other funding sources of their own.
"Reduction to higher education are less than 6 percent of the universities' total budgets," said Catherine Kelly, press secretary for Illinois GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, meaning that the governor's budget, which calls for reducing state aid to higher education by $387 million, or 31 percent, represents 6 percent of public higher education's total budget.
"The governor's budget preserves funding for community colleges and for the financial aid program for students who need assistance," Kelly said."
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's budget calls for a 31-percent cut in higher education funding. (AP/John Hanna)
Still, at a time when President Obama is calling for free community college, some question the impulse to slash higher ed support. Tuition costs have already risen steeply -- 15 percent on average at public colleges and universities between 2007 and 2012 -- leaving plenty of students saddled with debt.
Hurley said that with changing demographics, colleges and universities should do a better job reaching out to populations that have traditionally not been heavy users of higher ed, rather than pulling the ladder up from out of their grasp. Americans don't want the idea that higher education is the "great equalizer" to fail, says Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
He pointed out that a majority of states now tie some portion of their higher ed funding to specific outcomes, most often linked to student success in the labor market. That can be a problematic approach, since students starting a four-year degree may face altered prospects by the time they graduate.
"Cutting architecture programs during the recession, when there was high unemployment for entry into that field, would have looked efficient, but it would have been bad in the recovery," Strohl said.
Universities will resist eliminating programs based solely on the apparent preferences of the current labor market, noting that students who are broadly educated will carry a range of knowledge that is of potential benefit throughout their careers, not just specific skills handy for the first jobs they take right out of school.
In Wisconsin, Walker seemed to seek not just budget savings but a change in direction for higher ed. His staff, however, attributed language in his budget proposal to change part of the University of Wisconsin's mission statement from the "search for truth" to "meet the state's workforce needs" to a drafting error.
Meanwhile, there's been a push in some quarters to allow non-traditional institutions to offer certificates that would demonstrate mastery to employers of certain desired skills. "The area for growth is, I think, at the community-college level, with apprenticeship programs and more skills-based training and certificates," said Michael Strain, a labor economist at the American Enterprise Institute.
Few people doubt that colleges and universities could operate more efficiently. But will states help public colleges make the right changes, or simply leave them to cope on their own by reducing support even more.
Some states may be expecting their higher ed systems to make transitions too fast, Strohl suggested. "It's states taking the dollars away to make universities do something, but they're not clear about where they want them to go," he said. "If they're just cutting budgets without giving guidance, I would personally call that a governance failure."
Having faced an unending cycle of cuts, public college and university administrators recognize that they face an uncertain future.
Some are fighting back. The chair of the University of Arizona board of regents has suggested suing the state for failing to meet the constitutional requirement that college education be "as nearly free as possible."
Others have reached something closer to acceptance. Debra Thompson, vice chancellor of the Maricopa Community Colleges -- one of three community college systems in Arizona that had its state funding entirely zeroed out by this year's budget -- admitted she was "disappointed" by the cuts, which will put some initiatives on hold.
But she said the system was already looking for ways of becoming more entrepreneurial in serving its community -- for instance, by opening a campus offering non-credit training designed to answer workforce and industry needs.
And she said she recognizes that the budgetary realities that led lawmakers to end support for the schools.
"The state continues to have some challenges with its budget," Thompson said. "We definitely understand the need for a balanced budget."